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Bipartisan Senate group starts talking about gun proposals

Conversations started moments after Senate Republicans blocked a bill on combating domestic terrorism

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) departs after speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 24 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Hopes for a long-shot deal to pass a new federal law that could keep guns out of the hands of potential mass murderers were left Thursday in the hands of a small bipartisan group of senators, who pledged to explore multiple options even as lawmakers left Washington for a Memorial Day recess.

The talks, to be led by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), began in earnest less than two days after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school — and just moments after Senate Republicans blocked a bill aimed at addressing a previous U.S. mass shooting, the May 14 killing of 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket.

The 47-to-47 vote on that bill, which was aimed at focusing the federal government on combating domestic terrorism and white supremacy, demonstrated the partisan polarization around any measure addressing acts of mass gun violence. Forging a compromise on gun restrictions — which are fiercely opposed by most Republicans, who warn of a slippery slope toward constitutional infringement — will be even more difficult.

But Democrats and a handful of Republicans said the shock to the national conscience created by the tragedy in Uvalde, Tex., compels them to try again where previous efforts fell short, including those following the 2012 killing of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn.

“We’ve got to do something,” said Murphy, who represented Newtown as a House member at the time of the shooting. “We’ve got to do something significant, but I also know that we’re not going to be able to do everything at once.”

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Cornyn, who returned to the Capitol on Thursday after visiting Uvalde on Wednesday, said he believed the tragedy there could “provide some impetus” for compromise. But he made clear any potential legislation would have to be modest.

Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are not on the table, Republicans said. Instead negotiators are eyeing modest expansions of background checks and “red flag” laws that would allow authorities to keep guns away from people found to constitute a potential threat.

“Restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens is not going to make our communities or our country any safer,” Cornyn told reporters. “We need to focus on the specific problem and try to find ways to fix some of them.”

The negotiations kicked off Thursday afternoon inside Murphy’s basement office at the Capitol, with eight other senators present: Democrats Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), as well as Republicans Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.).

Murphy and Cornyn spoke separately Thursday, the two senators said.

Mindful of previous gun talks, which tend to peter out after weeks or months, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats would not allow the new round to drag on indefinitely: “Make no mistake about it, if these negotiations do not bear fruit in a short period of time, the Senate will vote on gun safety legislation.”

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Schumer moved this week to place two House-passed background-check expansion bills on the Senate calendar for a possible vote, but those do not have sufficient GOP support to defeat a filibuster and would fail if put up for a vote. His ultimatum effectively gives the bipartisan group until June 6, when the Senate returns from its recess, to show major progress toward compromise.

“Our hope, even amidst our deep skepticism, is that during this week, Democrats and Republicans at long last will come to agree on something meaningful that will reduce gun violence in a real way in America,” Schumer added.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, said he was “hopeful” for a bipartisan deal on a bill “directly related to the facts of this awful massacre.”

But crafting a bill “directly related” to the circumstances of the Uvalde shooting stands to be difficult. For one, those circumstances are still not fully known. Law enforcement officials, for instance, retracted previous statements about the response to the shooting and its timeline at a Thursday news conference.

For another, it remains unclear to what degree authorities knew about the threat that gunman Salvador Rolando Ramos, 18, represented to his community or whether a more robust background check law would have prevented him from purchasing the AR-style rifle he used in Tuesday’s attack.

Still, discussion has focused so far on potentially expanding the categories of gun sales that are subject to a federal background check — the focus of the failed 2013 effort after Newtown — or moving toward “red flag” laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, that allow authorities to keep guns away from troubled individuals.

Momentum appeared to build Thursday among some Republicans for federal legislation that would encourage states to establish red flag laws — as 19 states and the District of Columbia have already done — and Democrats seemed open to the possibility. But the details have been thorny: Republicans have been insistent on strong due process guarantees, and gun-rights groups have cast many of the state laws as a backdoor attempt at gun confiscation.

“We’ll see if we can find a way forward,” said Graham, who previously negotiated with Democrats on the topic after mass shootings in 2019.

Manchin, who led the post-Newtown effort to expand background checks, said a “little bit of everything” was on the table but expressed hope that the possibilities could be quickly narrowed.

“This feels different right now,” he said. “I can’t get my grandchildren out of my mind. It could have been them. And something needs to be done.”

Any sense of optimism, however, was tempered by Thursday’s vote on the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which moved through the House last week and to the Senate floor this week in response to the Buffalo killings. Most of the victims were Black, shot by a gunman who authorities say espoused white supremacy.

The Post’s Leigh Ann Caldwell explains the House legislation aimed to elevate the federal government's efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Heather Ainsworth/The Washington Post)

Schumer on Wednesday said the bill, which passed the House largely on party lines, constitutes “a necessary and timely step to honor the memories of the dead in Buffalo, and to make sure mass shootings motivated by race don’t happen again.” But he also said Thursday’s procedural vote was an opportunity to start debating the gun control proposals that have emerged in the aftermath of the Uvalde rampage.

“Americans, my colleagues, don’t want thoughts and prayers,” Schumer said. “They want their elected leaders to respond to their suffering.”

Republicans, however, not only said it was premature to debate a response to the recent mass shootings, they expressed serious qualms about the content of the domestic terrorism bill itself. They echoed House GOP concerns that its provisions would lead to “targeting” of conservatives by the Justice Department, among other concerns.

House passes bill targeting domestic terrorism in wake of Buffalo mass shooting

The bill would require the FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to create specific domestic terrorism bureaus and for each agency to jointly report twice yearly, including specific assessments of the “threat posed by White supremacists and neo-Nazis.” The bill also directs the agencies to focus on the infiltration by White racist groups of law enforcement and corrections agencies as well as the military, creating an interagency task force to do so.

Advancing the bill to a debate required the support of at least 10 Republicans due to the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule. But the vote failed on straight party lines, with Schumer joining Republicans in voting no for procedural reasons.

Cornyn, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said earlier this week that the bill was “redundant” and would detract from the federal government’s “ability to flexibly deal with other forms of terrorism.”

“There’s a downside to duplicating authorities and to stovepiping resources,” he said.

Asked if white supremacy and neo-Nazism were domestic threats worthy of specific focus by Congress, Cornyn made reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s baseless “de-Nazification” justification for his invasion of Ukraine.

“Mr. Putin is seeing Nazis in Ukraine. I guess our Democratic colleagues are focused on Nazis in America,” he said. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

Another Republican, Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.) dismissed the bill as “pure messaging” and “trying to take advantage of people’s grief.”

“I don’t see how having an extremism statute makes anybody’s death more comforting or any less likely,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) noted Wednesday that the FBI itself has identified a growing domestic terror threat, including from white supremacist groups, and said that it was time for Congress to act.

“Time and again, the Senate has failed to take any meaningful steps to prevent violent extremism,” he said. “When exactly did stopping mass murder become a partisan issue?”

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